Presidential Review: Thomas Jefferson

7 Mar

Ok, as an opener I want to remind you I am not reviewing Jefferson’s life, where he did many impressive and a few unimpressive things, but his presidency.  So no complaining that I’m not mentioning the Declaration of Independence or anything like that.  Most of our presidents did some impressive things before they served, that’s why they got the chance in the first place, so with that in mind…

Jefferson, sheesh, talk about a president who was absolutely full of contradictions.  He was the figurehead for Jeffersonian democracy, yet as president broke most of the tenants Jeffersonian democracy was built on.   So he believes in ending national debt, yet borrows money from Britain for the Louisiana purchase.  He was against the alien and sedition acts yet impeached a Supreme Court justice because of sedition, and don’t even get me started on slavery.

To start, Jefferson’s presidency has a completely different tone than the ones before him.   Washington and Adams (both Federalists) were concerned about setting up a strong federal government out of fears that the new government would fail.  Jefferson seems to have none of those fears, and for the most part, the public backed him up on this.  No longer worrying about whether America could function as a country, freed Jefferson up to have a vision for America’s future.

Jeffersonian Democracy–a country with a loose and heavily controlled Federal government that depends on the farming community as the bedrock for society.  Instead of having a strong federal government that places its will on states, Jefferson believed in loose governance which the states want to be part of.  Also, he really thought that states rights should be at least equal to federal rights in terms of laws and running things, in Jefferson’s mind, the more local governance is, the better it will be.  He didn’t believe in having a standing military outside of times of war encouraging people to own and defend their own land and using militias.  He did believe in investing federal funds into places like West Point, in encouraging military leadership.  Jefferson reasoned that we could always raise an army in a pinch, but getting good generals takes a longer investment.

Ok, so the good.  Jefferson’s presidency showed that there could be a peaceful transition between two parties (and honestly I think that made people feel a little less wary that the US government might fall apart.)  He did not completely rout out all Federalist appointees, even though he was pretty aggressive with removing federalist judges.  In fact, he did nothing to discourage Federalist talk–the reason Federalism went away was because that party had problems with bickering and eventually imploded because they couldn’t agree on a direction for the party.

Also, there’s the Louisiana purchase–while I must mention that the Native American population had no say in this matter, the Louisiana purchase was the biggest step Jefferson took in changing the course of our nation’s history.  While I’m not always a fan of nineteenth century expansionist policy, the Louisiana purchase was one of the few acquisitions the United States got peacefully–with Napoleon in power in France, we simply bought this land from them.  This is one of the times that Jefferson sidesteps his own rules though, he did not believe he had the authority to buy Louisiana under the constitution, but because time was of the essence, he broke down and bought it.  Really, this shows Jefferson’s genius as president–even though he was an idealist, most of his decisions were pragmatic.   Also there was the Lewis and Clark expedition, which captured America’s imagination–really it was that generation’s version of the moon landing, full of excitement and a sense of wonder.   While getting Louisiana was really Jefferson’s lucky break, he folded it right in to the idea of Jeffersonian Democracy–with so much land, almost anyone (at least white male anyone) could have a chance of having a farm, and thus begin the farmer’s democracy that Jefferson was so enamored with.

Also, you know that line in the Marine Hymn “the banks of Tripoli.”  Jefferson sent the marines to clear out the Barbary Pirates in Tripoli, these pirates had been a nuisance for any traders around the coasts of modern day Libya.   This was America’s first successful overseas military action in 1805.    Wildly successful, this was also a military action that showed the world that the United States was now functional, and to be reckoned with.

Now for the not so good.   First Haiti–Jefferson really messed up when it came to Haiti, a country started from a slave uprising that Jefferson initially supported to get France out of the Carribean.  However, Jefferson’s tune changed for two reasons–Haiti’s independence terrified southern slave-owners lest the same sort of uprising happen to them.   I think that Haiti’s independence is the turning point in early America that changed the southern attitude to great defensiveness when it came to slavery, in fact after this point any attempt to have a high-minded discourse on the topic would quickly derail into emotionality and mulish stubbornness on the pro-slavery side.  The second  reason was that Jefferson was really wanting to buy Florida, Louisiana style from Spain, but Spain wasn’t interested in selling.  After initially (though subversively) supporting Haiti’s independence, Jefferson abruptly went the other way, now that Napoleon had greater and greater influence over European affairs, and refused to acknowledge Haiti’s independence, and even shut down trade with them.  So we’ve got skeezy politics, racism, and Jefferson didn’t even get Florida anyway.

Slavery–Jefferson is the most complicated president when it comes to slavery, beating even Washington in that regard.    He stated that he was against slavery, and wanted for a gradual release.  His plan was to first, make international slave trade illegal (already done through Adams), second improve the standard of living for slaves (never done), and third make a cut off date where anybody born after a certain year could not be a slave.    He also didn’t think that black people were equal to white people, and that it would be impossible for the two groups to coexist in the same country and be free.   He fought against freeing slaves as well, and any effort of emancipation.  He saw slavery as being the big issue that would bring America to Civil War, yet did very little to change anything about it.

Native American policy was little better.  Jefferson allowed “Americanized” tribes to stay east of the Appalachians, but sent the rest out west.  Though it wasn’t the trail of tears, it hardly was a crowning achievement.

The last bit that didn’t go so well at the time, but matters less now, is the national Embargo of foreign goods.  This is where Jeffersonian Democracy failed–with the European war, Jefferson was hoping to put a little pressure on both sides to allow the United States to be neutral and continue trade with who we wanted.  However, the Embargo really hurt the economy, wasn’t well enforced, and didn’t really convince the European powers of anything.  Also the enforcement meant that Jefferson had to rebuild the Navy that he did not want to make sure American ships weren’t breaking embargo laws.  (See what I mean about him breaking his own rules?)

So we’ve got Louisiana Purchase–A+, Barbary War–A, Peaceful transition–A +,  Slavery–F, Native American Relations–D, Embargo–D+

I can’t really average these–Jefferson’s good is so good and Jefferson’s bad is so bad it’s like looking at two different people.  His ideas of states rights and slavery sowed the seeds for the civil war half a century later, but in growing the nation and really getting in touch with Americans, he had a great positive impact too.    ARGH MY HEAD HURTS.

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